I’ve been discussing red flags a fair bit, and intend to discuss more in the future. Before I continue, I want to address how to recognize the red flags of abuse, how they differ from normal relationship disagreements, normal imperfections found in all people, and why they are important to be aware of.
No one is perfect. Everyone experiences times when we say or do hurtful things against those we love. We each lash out in anger or pain and promptly regret our words or actions later. We experience sincere regret and appropriately apologize afterwards. These isolated incidents are not abuse, necessarily. It is inevitable for us, imperfect humans, to cause pain to those around us. What parent has not spoken a harsh, unnecessary word to their child? What spouse has not lost their temper and spoken out of turn without all the facts, or simply because we’re upset, justifiably or not?
Herein lies one of the dangers of blaming the victim, questioning them as to why they stayed; or expecting them to keep “trying”. It is not a simple act to discern whether you are experiencing abuse or a season of disagreement or stress in a relationship. Abuse takes time to recognize because, outside of physical abuse which is easily recognized at the very first strike, it is, by definition “a pattern of behavior used to gain and maintain power and control,…” (Love is Respect webpage). A pattern takes time and awareness to recognize. For a victim of abuse, it is even more difficult because the abuse is intended to keep them from thinking clearly, it is intended to make them question whether it is true, whether they deserve it, whether it was intentional.
Emotional and verbal abuse are difficult to recognize, especially by yourself and often by others as well. Abuse is notoriously done in privacy, and an accusation or revelation of abuse quickly becomes a “he said / she said” situation. An abuser lives two different lives, one in public and another behind closed doors. There are, however, still signs visible to the public eye.
My sister, I’ll call her “Lily”, was married for close to 18 years. For many of those years she dealt with a husband who insulted her, but then laughed it of as a “joke” stating he didn’t really mean it; he criticized everything she did, insinuating that nothing was ever really good enough. He spent many years unemployed while she supported them financially and still cared for all the cooking and housework. After they had children, she stayed home until the children started school. She then returned to work in the service industry. He often accused her of flirting at work, coming onto or encouraging the advances of her customers. She was excellent in customer service and had great work ethic. None of us recognized this jealousy as abusive. Eventually she was able to leave the service industry and found work as an office assistant. Her new employers were more than her boss, they became her friend. As she found more confidence in her new position, she started to recognize that she deserved to be treated better than she had been for her married life.
I started to recognize that his behaviour was abusive, but even then, I didn’t know enough to properly advise her as to the warning signs. She told him to leave in early November 2005. Unfortunately, her children didn’t take it well and her eldest child stopped eating, demanding that daddy come home. Her husband called me, in tears, asking me to convince her to take him back. He even asked to pray with me, despite being against God at every turn previously. I shared with her his call and made it clear I was with her, no matter what she decided, I refused to keep secrets from her. She did not want him back. She lasted two weeks before allowing him to come home. In the month and a half that followed, he went above and beyond to do things she had wanted him to do previously. He, as my best friend puts it, love-bombed her.
She didn’t buy his sudden change in behaviour and made plans to ask him to leave after Christmas. The emotional and verbal abuse he had shown her over the years had killed her love for him. She did not, however recognize that her experiences were abuse. She told me a couple weeks before Christmas that he had never hit her. She would have left immediately if he had. We discussed if she needed a safety plan, a place to go herself instead of kicking him out again, she didn’t feel it was necessary. Without fully knowing why, I was scared for her.
On December 22, the police showed up at my door to tell me Lily was dead, and so was her husband, both at his hands. I’ll never know what triggered him to attack her that night. I’ll never understand how he could suddenly go from emotional and verbal abuse to murder, but that is exactly what happened. The first time he hit her, their two children were left orphaned, traumatized by a night beyond understanding.
That so-called “humour”, barely disguised contempt expressed as a joke, was abuse all along. While my brother-in-law never raised a hand to Lily or her children, he was no less abusive than a man who regularly leaves bruises. Bruises on the heart are much easier to disguise, but no less dangerous.
Emotional, verbal, financial, and spiritual abuse are all as real and dangerous as physical and sexual abuse. They are just as life threatening. They should never be dismissed or under estimated.
We have to be aware of the patterns. We must be willing to recognize red flags and identify if they are isolated, human imperfections, or whether they are a part of a larger whole. Belittling your loved ones, cutting them down and insulting them is not funny, it’s not joke material, it is abuse. Don’t participate if you hear others doing it. Don’t laugh at this sick humour, call it out. Don’t accept as appropriate what is not acceptable.
Domestic violence is deadly. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, it all has the potential to end in the most unimaginable, worst possible way.
It may be tempting to dismiss Lily’s story as an extreme example, but, according to CanadianWomen.org, statistics show that every 6 days, a women dies from domestic violence, in Canada alone. More than one a week. Domestic violence is very serious business!
Let us not be silent. Let us not allow this horrible statistic to continue to be a reality. It is unconscionable that this continues. Chose to become educated on the red flags of abuse. Learn how to identify them and help protect those who are vulnerable to abuse. Stand in support with those who are brave enough to speak of their experiences.
If you are experiencing abuse, know you are not alone. Help is out there!
Canada resources can be found at ShelterSafe.ca
USA resources can be found at TheHotline.org